I was recently asked to return to my alma mater, Swarthmore College, to participate in a forum on politics and folk music. Although I could not attend in person because of a conflicting obligation, the organizers invited me to submit some comments to be read at the forum. Here are my remarks:
I grew up in West Virginia, the grandson of immigrant miners. My maternal grandfather made his way out of the mines and into the grocery business. My paternal grandfather worked in the mines and on the railroads his entire life, and died of lung disease. He was a strong union man, and a strong anti-communist. The same was true of most of his co-workers. He and most of them were devoutly religious men. Their faith, I believe, gave them a powerful immunity against Marxist ideology and propaganda. Very few of them allowed themselves to be deceived about Stalin or the great Soviet “utopia.”
They were what we would today call social conservatives. They supported the New Deal, and very nearly worshipped Franklin Delano Roosevelt; at the same time, they strongly valued hard work, personal responsibility, self-discipline and self-restraint, and the integrity of the family. The slogan “if it feels good, do it” would have appalled and disgusted them. They were patriotically pro-American, viewing the United States as a great force for good in the world. Many were military veterans. They recognized that America had its faults—some of them very serious—but they saw the American story as a determined struggle by the nation to live up to its great founding principles. Those who, like my grandfathers, were immigrants were especially grateful to the United States for the liberty and opportunity the nation afforded them and their families.
The folk music I grew up with reflected these values. I grew up among coal miners and union men—their songs condemned unfairness and exploitation, and were often, and justly, critical of the coal companies—but it was not until I arrived at Swarthmore that I heard my first communist anthem. Some songs, such as Billy Ed Wheeler’s haunting “Coal Tatoo,” were critical of the union, at least implicitly, as well as the companies. Very many of the songs I heard, and later played, while growing up were hymns. My favorites were those of the Carter Family. “I’m Going to Take a Trip on That Old Gospel Ship,” “Hold Fast to the Right,” and, of course, “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”
The first song I learned to flat pick on the guitar was the great Carter Family classic: “The Wildwood Flower.” I still love to play it. After learning to play guitar, I picked up the five string banjo. The traditional style of playing in West Virginia and other parts of Appalachia was what is sometimes called “claw hammer” style, and we called “frailing.” By my time, though, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and Don Reno had made “three finger picking,” or what was also called “Scruggs style” or “bluegrass” banjo playing popular. I learned both styles, but found I could earn more money performing with bands at county fairs, church socials, and rod & gun clubs playing Scruggs style, so that became my focus.
I performed with a number of groups, most often with a pair of brothers who were my best school friends, Tom and Bob Smith. They were fine singers and musicians. I also played from time to time with a bluegrass band called the “Currence Brothers.” Jimmy and Lodi were the brothers and Malcolm was a nephew. All three suffered from hemophilia, which made earning a living playing music preferable to working in the mines. Lodi was an excellent guitarist and Malcolm was a good bass player, but Jimmy was the musical stand out. He was an incomparable fiddler, though unless I or another banjo player was around he usually played the banjo, at which he was also a virtuoso. It was an extraordinary blessing to watch and listen and learn from him.
With the Currence Brothers, our mix of numbers tended to be love songs (or love-gone-wrong songs), hymns, patriotic songs (including their own composition entitled “To Vietnam Our Son is Going”), and novelty tunes (such as Homer and Jethro’s marvelous “I’m My Own Grandpa”). Of course, there were also mining songs, my favorite of which was “Dark as a Dungeon” by the great Merle Travis. The mining songs were almost always, in some sense, “political,” though not always straightforwardly so, and often enough the political messages were, as I’ve already suggested, complex.